butterfly, part 10

Pinning down South American butterflies

South America has probably the greatest diversity of butterflies in the world. There are thousands of species, dozens of genera (that’s the plural of genus), and at least a half-dozen distinct families. Their diversity is aided by the same thing that challenges those who wish to study them: the geography of South America, which includes quite a lot of dense jungle and quite a lot of mountains. Isolation and lack of mobility can foster considerable differences over time. 

And yet, butterflies of entirely different families sometimes develop considerable similarities when they are in long-term close contact in the same environment – another sort of butterfly effect: two genetically unrelated butterflies might look nearly identical, while two genetically related ones might look quite different, just because of who’s been around whom in what environment.

South America also has – and, much more so, had – one of the greatest diversities of languages in the world. While the Niger-Congo region of Africa is hard to beat for sheer density of different languages, South America is a contender, and in some ways it’s even more diverse: while Africa has, depending on whom you ask, four or maybe five or six families of languages (though each has considerable internal diversity), and perhaps a few isolates (languages that don’t seem to be related to any other language), South America has, as far as linguists have been able to sort out, about 40 language families (including a dozen major ones) and more than 80 isolates. When Europeans first came to South America, there were at least 600 languages. Many of those are extinct now, and many others are endangered, but there are still hundreds of languages spoken there. 

And the diversity of South American languages is aided by the same thing that challenges those who wish to study them: the geography of South America, which includes quite a lot of dense jungle and quite a lot of mountains. Isolation and lack of mobility can foster considerable differences over time. But related languages don’t stay all in one place; over time the speakers move around – a map of language families of South America shows a pattern of language families as variegated as a butterfly wing.

And while in a real way language is culture, you can, in a given area, have people with similar culture but unrelated languages, and you can also have people who speak related languages but have quite distinct cultures, just because of who’s been around whom in what environment. And languages of entirely different families sometimes develop considerable similarities when they are in long-term close contact in the same environment.

But butterflies and languages – and language speakers – have some important differences. If you catch and kill some butterflies, you can study them after they’re dead and pinned down on a board, and you’re not going to be killing off the rest – at least not on purpose. By contrast, you can’t study a language if the speakers are dead – and when Europeans came and interacted with the indigenous peoples of South America, there was a lot of killing. And even if the speakers are not killed off, their languages may not survive; in fact, the same kinds of contact that bring people who study the languages (with an aim of recording and even preserving them) also bring commercial and cultural forces that are more than happy to dominate and suffocate languages that hinder them. 

Certainly, we can record the words, but dictionaries are the butterfly boards of languages. You see the specimens, inert, isolated, arranged neatly; you don’t see them in motion and transformation. Just as a butterfly on a board is clearly not a bat, but you don’t know whether it flies any different from a bat until you see it in motion, you really don’t know how words are used until you see and hear them in use. You may not even know something as simple as how the word changes when there’s more than one of the thing – one butterfly, a million butterflies.

On the other hand, the cultural contacts that can endanger languages can also create new languages through the contact and interaction of languages, as we’ve seen with Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea. The area of the Caribbean has some notable creoles: for example, Sranan Tongo is a main language of Suriname; Papiamento is very common in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao; Kreyòl ayisyen (Haitian Creole) is the main language of Haiti; and although English is officially the language of Jamaica, Patwah (Patois) is spoken by the majority of Jamaicans.

One fact coming out of all of this, however, is that while South America is as rich for linguists as it is for lepidopterists, although the armchair entomologist can learn about thousands of pretty bugs from the comfort of home, the armchair etymologist is, frankly, pretty bugged: online resources are limited (and in fact published resources in general are not as abundant as you might think), and those that have lists of words do not, in general, have any information about the origins and development of those words. 

Anyway, the truth is that if you study South American linguistics, you are more likely to be studying varieties of Spanish and Portuguese. And while there’s a lot of variation in Spanish varieties between different countries of Latin America, it’s similar to the variation in kinds of English – una mariposa es una mariposa. And while Brazilian Portuguese has various local varieties, and all of it can immediately be distinguished by ear from European Portuguese, no entanto, uma borboleta é uma borboleta.

But at least I can pin down a board of a few words for ‘butterfly’ in South American and Caribbean indigenous languages and creoles. It’s not much, but the languages – and their speakers – live on.

There is panambí, from Guarani, which is spoken by more than 6 million people in Paraguay and nearby areas – and is the most spoken language in Paraguay. Panambí is also the name of a municipality in Argentina (and just across the river from Paraguay) and a different municipality in southern Brazil.

There is pillpintu, from Quechua, which has up to 10 million speakers – mostly in the northern Andes countries – and which was the language of the Inca empire. (The ll is said similar to Italian gl or some versions of Spanish ll). 

There is pilpintu, from Aymara, which has nearly 2 million speakers in Bolivia and the adjoining areas of Peru, Argentina, and Chile. Seeing these Quechua and Aymara words, by now you should not be surprised when I tell you that the two languages are… probably not related in their historical origins (it’s “disputed”). Oh, the two words are related – one language got it from the other – but that’s a thing that can happen when languages are in long-term close contact with each other in the same environment. 

There is jampvzkeñ, from Mapudungun, which is spoken by about 200,000 people in Chile and Argentina. (The v stands for the vowel also written ü; the z is like English th; the j is like the Quechua ll.)

There is julirü, from Wayuu (also known as Guajiro), which is spoken by more than 400,000 people in Venezuela and Colombia. (The j is said as in Spanish, like English h.)

There is palanpalan, from the Galibi variety of Carib spoken by a few thousand people in the countries of the northern coastal area of South America. I can’t tell you whether this is also the word that was spoken in the Island Carib of the Caribbean Islands; that stopped being spoken a century ago. The Caribbean, like many places heavily settled by people of European extraction (including many suburban subdivisions), is named after something (in this case a people and a language) that was displaced by what it’s known for now (sugar plantations, resorts, et cetera).

I tried, but was not able, to find out the word for ‘butterfly’ in any of a number of other indigenous languages of South America and the Caribbean. But I found words in the creoles I mentioned above.

There is kaperka, from Sranan Tongo, spoken in Suriname by a half million people, including more than 100,000 for whom it’s their first language (Sranan Tongo means ‘Suriname Tongue’). Though Sranan Tongo has a substrate of English, a lot of its vocabulary comes from Dutch, and there are also words from Spanish, Portuguese, and some West African languages. I don’t know for sure where kaperka comes from, but it seems relevant that, while kapel is Dutch for ‘chapel’, in some varieties of Dutch it also means ‘butterfly’.

There is barbulet, from Papiamento, spoken by more than 300,000 people in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao; although it is spoken in the Dutch Caribbean, Papiamento is a Portuguese-based creole (as you may have guessed from the resemblance to borboleta).

There is papiyon, from Haitian Creole, which is spoken by more than 12 million people in Haiti. (And yes, the source of the word is French papillon.)

And, finally, there is bat, from Jamaican Patois, spoken by more than 3 million people in Jamaica. Yes, according to my source, the word for ‘butterfly’ is bat. The word for ‘bat’, on the other hand, is rat-bat.

Next: Central and North America, fluttering from the tropics to the Arctic

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